“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
The preceding passage is from Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution and gives a guideline for how both the number of representatives in the House of Representatives and taxes shall be apportioned. The underlined portion is of particular importance for our topic as it has been the source of much historical misinformation. It is likely that what you learned about this part of the Constitution while in high school is incorrect, or at least rather misleading; then again, much of what you learned about the Constitution is highly inaccurate. The common reaction or presumption about the so-called three-fifths compromise is that it was a tool used to control slaves in the United States and is evidence that white Americans thought that blacks were only 3/5 human. There was a segment of society that thought such an absurd thing; however, this portion of the Constitution is not indicative of it. In fact, anyone that is a direct descendant of someone bound in slavery ought to be truly thankful that this concept made it into the Constitution.
I know this idea is counter to what our popular culture and politicians lead us to believe of the framers of the Constitution; but, on the bright side, it is hardly the first time politicians have lied or obfuscated reality. We must first understand that at this point in the Constitutional Convention there was significant concern that the union might yet dissolve making the former colonies a veritable smorgasbord of resources and increasing production for the European powers to come and dine from. Furthermore, there was existing contention between the northern states and southern states regarding the institution of slavery and its moral repugnance (my description). However, many at the convention were well aware that an attempt to end the practice in the Constitution would result in a fracture in the union and certain conflict both with outside powers and between the states themselves. Since protection, or national security in today’s parlance, was the primary impetus of the union, it was imperative that the slavery question be held to another day. Otherwise, slavery would have continued in the divided territories anyhow.
On the other hand, it was important to the north that slavery not be allowed to remain a perpetually growing enterprise and that southern states would not be able to drive the congressional boat because they could count slaves for representative reasons without any intention to allow them to vote--or engage in any other sort of self-destiny. The three-fifths rule was not a new concept designed for the Constitution and some in the northern states were concerned the three-fifths number was too high. In fact, some southern delegates briefly attempted to argue for the counting of their slaves as whole persons. I will give you a second to take another look at that last sentence. The slave owners wanted the slaves to count as whole persons for the purpose of representation while the anti-slavery northern delegates would have preferred a downgrading. If racism was the motivator for this provision, would not the tables have been reversed? Of course they would have.
So, why did the anti-slavery north support counting slaves as less than a whole person while the pro-slavery south wanted them counted completely? Power; specifically political power, which likely would have allowed slavery to last long beyond when it was eradicated in America in the 1860s. If the slaves of the south would have been counted as whole persons the balance of the House of Representatives would have fallen significantly toward the southern states and would have likely caused the practice to perpetuate and spread throughout the new territories. The south was low on population (non-slave) compared to the north, but the volume of slaves pushed their numbers well beyond those of the north. Some in the north held concerns that even with a three-fifths rule the south would just import more slaves as a way to gain control of the House; and, because of the Electoral College, probably the presidency in most cases.
The three-fifths compromise actually helped stem the spread of slavery into the west through legislative domination. It seems reasonable to assume that with a large legislative mandate created by a complete counting of slaves in the south, the practice would have had enough power to live well beyond the 1860s. Regardless of the accusation by those who profit from the “racial” divide; there is no inherent racism in the three-fifths clause. If someone tells you there is you should either question their knowledge on the matter or their motives. Perhaps we should consider what Dr. Martin Luther King had to say about the framers of the Constitution and their glorious experiment in liberty:
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (Yeah), they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed to the ‘Unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’”